Thursday, November 20, 2008

What Have They Been Eating?

When we went away for our three week trip to New Mexico in the latter half of October Mars and I jokingly worried that our resident squirrels -- whose supply of sunflower seeds and corn was shut off for the duration -- would suffer the pangs of hunger or, even worse, the pains of starvation during our absence.


We expected to return to lethargic, emaciated shells of their former sleek, athletic selves. Instead we were greeted by a flotilla of "Hinden-squirrels" -- fur covered zeppelins who looked more like candidates for gastric bypass surgery and Jazzy Power Wheelchairs than acrobatic performers in our front yard cirque de seed-bottle.

It was like we had gone to a concert of the rock group Heart hoping to see Nancy Wilson but could not because she was hidden behind her "big sister" Ann.

As if we stumbled into a "Subway Jared" diet commercial being played backwards.

Like we ordered "Body Heat" from Netflix and were sent "Body Fat" instead.

When we left them, our yard pets looked like Michael Phelps in a skin-tight squirrel suit. Now they more closely resembled all 12,000 calories of his daily diet, stuffed directly into a way-to-small fur duffle bag.

Most mammals put on "winter weight" -- storing up fat reserves in anticipation of the colder weather and concurrent shortage of food. Squirrels gain about twelve percent of their body weight -- about one tenth of what our guys have accomplished. Twelve percent is more in keeping with my memory of squirrel expansion in years past. So what about the other one hundred and eight percent? How did this obesity epidemic happen?

The obvious answer is exercise and diet. Without our labyrinth of high altitude eating aeries to work out on, and with no other health club or gymnasium within which to burn off calories, the squirrels became just another bunch of drey potatoes -- lounging around and lazily devouring the supply of acorns that they had been setting aside since the first oak fruit had fallen.

But lack of exercise and a diet of acorns are not enough to fully explain our yard pets' devolution from fit to fat. According to, one serving of acorns contains 142 calories of which 74 are fat. Compare that to 384 calories with 184 fat in McDonalds French fries and it is clear that our newly porcine pets had some unnatural help with their overeating orgy.

I suspect our neighbor B. She recently acquired a cat that is, she proudly told me, a great hunter-and-gatherer of chipmunks. And probably would do the same to the squirrels if they just weren't so darned agile and quick. What better way to provide food and entertainment for her feline predator than to hinder its prey by adding a few pounds and inches to them?

But truth be told, the squirrels additional girth and weight does not seem to have slowed them down at all. They still acquit themselves admirably on the jungle-gym-seed-cafeteria that hangs from our Flowering Crab -- performing pretty much all of their original moves, albeit casting a much larger shadow than before. And they scurry across the yard in pursuit of each other with pretty much the same reckless abandon and breakneck speed as in their thinner days -- although their silhouettes now more closely resemble a Low Rider car than an Aston Martin.

What we are witnessing in our front yard is similar to the unexpected terpsichorean tour de forces of football behemoths such as Warren Sapp on the television program "Dancing With The Stars" -- the triumph of natural athletic ability over the forces of gravity and inertia.

Or perhaps the overriding power of an intense and selfish desire for something -- especially food.

Thanks to their new on-board supply of cellulite, the stress of seasonal starvation is no longer an issue. Now the squirrels can devote themselves totally to the joys of recreational eating and gamboling in and above the yard -- their high fat content provides a golden parachute that allows them to take gustatory (and other) risks without any fear of failing or falling.

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good.

Cat Hiking

The following was written in Santa, New Mexico on our third day of dog/cat/house sitting.

Vacations give you the chance to experience things that you might not have an opportunity to do at home. This week Mars and I went hiking with a cat.

(Picture by Mars - click to enlarge)

We both consider ourselves "dog people". Each of us had family canines in our youth, and during our marriage we provided room and board to Nicole Marie, a Labrador Retriever / Irish Setter cross, for about twelve years. After her passing we decided not to get another because with both of us working it just wouldn't fair to a new dog -- and it was confining on us.

Neither Mars nor I have any cats in our history. In fact over the past several years we each had instantaneous congested-head, itchy-eyed allergic reactions to the furry felines. Now we are house-sitting for one of them in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Actually the cat was added to J and J's family after we had accepted their house-sitting gig so I prefer to think of it as a throw in -- not really a part of the reason we were there but rather a tiny divertimento from our real responsibility, the previously mentioned Audrey the dog.

She is a tiny cat -- tiger with some calico (Mars' guess). J and J call her "KitKat" although as our son Bram says it is a mystery why people bother to name their cats, "It's not like they come when they're called anyway."

Like Audrey the dog, KitKat requires very little attention. She is a "self-regulating" eater who is allowed outside on her own throughout the day and (if she chooses) at night. We were asked to keep her and Audrey inside when the coyotes are prowling in the immediate area, but she has apparently spent several outdoor all-nighters in the high desert by herself.

Mars crocheted some toys for her but, after an initial display of interest, she has largely ignored them. And us. She did however crawl into bed with us briefly around five o'clock last night (our second sleeping night there). And about four hours later went for her second hike with us.

J and J said that she might do that, and not to worry -- although she is normally kept inside on their own high desert treks because she becomes "bothersome". We hadn't really planned on her accompanying us but she scurried out the front door as Audrey and we were exiting -- so there she was.

We walked down to the arroyo and hiked up one of its side tributaries -- a distance of about two miles. Audrey, as is her wont, led the way -- running ahead in search of long eared rabbits to chase through the low underbrush on the hills and banks alongside the dried-out waterway. The cat stayed an equal distance behind us -- walking about a third of the time in our footprints and the remainder in the same part of the landscape as the dog, but presumably looking for smaller prey. She would be gone from sight for several minutes then suddenly sprint past us at breakneck speed and quickly drop back to her rear guard position -- as if she forgot then suddenly remembered that she was not really a part of our trekking team. (Kind of like the oh-so-bored "tween" girl in the Royal Carribean Cruise commercial that gets caught smiling during her jet-ski lesson then quickly realizes that she is on her mom's video camera.)

We hiked up the bone-dry side stream until we came to one of the metal inlet pipes that conduct the overflowing mountain pour-offs into the stream bed. There being no real alternative we turned and headed back. KitKat decided to explore the outer edges of the corrugated conduit. Being unsure of her loyalty to us, or her ability to find her own way home, Mars and I paced back and forth for a few minutes before convincing ourselves to leave the area.

We walked for about five minutes with no signs of the cat when she darted past us and fell back into her self-designated spot in our slowly moving parade. Moments later we lost sight of her again until we left the arroyo and found her laying down in the shade by the side of the dirt road that leads at a forty-five degree incline back up to the house.

Evidently as long as she knows where she is, or where she is going, she will ignore us. When she is uncertain as to what is going on, she keeps in touch. But not enough to make us feel needed or even wanted. Her body language, unlike that of Audrey, never betrays any recognition of our presence.

Last night, around 1:15 a.m., movement awakened me on the outside of our bed up around my head. KitKat was standing next to me, her silhouette barely visible in the dark.

In spite of the complete novelty, and overall freakiness, of the situation I fell asleep. Three hours later I awoke again and was told by Mars that the cat was lying between us, sleeping. I woke up again at 6:15 and detected a definite animal smell next to me and when I rearranged my body I could feel her paws pressing against it.

A little later, when I got up to go to the bathroom, she left the bed. Mars said that she had taken up residence there at four o'clock -- apparently her earlier visit being just exploratory.

Then this morning we all went for another hike.

I have no idea what other "firsts" the cat has in store for us. Maybe tomorrow she would like to join us for a visit to the museums and lunch in town. She could pretend that she was by herself and had no idea who we were. Apparently all it takes to make her comfortable is for us to be around -- and act as if we aren't.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Just Doing My Job

Our son Bram says, "Every dog needs a job." Audrey's is guarding the house in which she lives with J and J in the high desert hills of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Mars and my job was to stay with Audrey for three weeks recently while her housemates were away on vacation.

Every day when we left we would let Audrey outside and tell her "Guard the house. Good girl!" She would immediately turn around and trot eagerly to her post at the front of the house.

As we drove away we could see her looking down at us -- her haunches firmly rooted in the dry, desert earth; her body tense with total attention; and her head turning slowly and deliberately to scan the surrounding topography.

When we returned hours later she was still there. And, as we drove around to the backyard, she ran to greet us -- with a super-sized yawn and a well-executed downward dog yoga stretch. This made me suspicious that she might have been taking an unauthorized break from her sentry duties. So I would check the wetness and warmth of her nose looking for the telltale signs of canine goldbricking. I never found any.

Still I found it really hard to believe that she stayed steadfastly sitting at her station for the entire duration of our absence. Hopefully she at least took a moment or two to hydrate at one of her two outdoor water bowls. Or to divert her laser-like attention, if only for the briefest nanosecond, to one of the white meat bones that she was given to amuse her on her longer tours of duty.

On the other hand, when you really love your job...

Now I myself have enjoyed certain aspects of certain jobs that I have held in my pre-retirement lifetime. In that same span of time however there were only two workers that I have seen with the same attitude and work ethic as Audrey -- another dog, and a hooker that I met early one morning in New York City.

The dog was a member of the Hartford, Connecticut Police Department. One day, as I was begrudgingly trudging across that city's Main Street, on my way to my former job, I heard the sound of emergency sirens approaching and two police cars passed quickly through the intersection.

The first held just the driver. But the second had a police canine in the back passenger seat. The window was down, and the dog's body up to its shoulders stuck out into the warm morning air. He mostly looked ahead toward where he was being driven. But he did glance around a few times as if to check out his audience. His ears flapped in the breeze, and his face had the open-mouthed smile of a dog in ecstasy.

As the car passed beyond the intersection, the driver hit the siren and the dog barked a deep-voiced duet. In my mind he was saying, "This is as good as it gets!" -- riding with his best friend, flying through the air with total abandon, on his way to do the thing that he, and only he, did best.

I thought how I would like to be that happy for just five minutes. And he was going to work.

I met the call girl when I was out for a pre-dawn exercise jog while on a business trip to the "Big Apple." It was around thirty-two degrees but, due to bad planning, I was wearing just shorts and a tee shirt as I ran up 57th Street approaching 7th Avenue. On the corner I saw an incredibly attractive woman wearing an incredibly short miniskirt, incredibly high stiletto heels, and (what looked like to me anyway) an incredibly expensive, waist length fur jacket.

As I arrived at the intersection she looked me in the eyes and said, "Ain't you'ze cold in that outfit?" "Aren't you?" I replied. She smiled and said with a sense of pride, "Yeh, but I won't be out here for long." as she turned and walked into the shiny black limousine that just then pulled up at the curb.

Like Audrey, both the hound in blue and the harlot in heels seemed to revel in the anticipation of doing their respective jobs. And, again like Audrey, each of them was really good at what they did.

At least I assume that they were. I mean how would I know? I never know...

Besides, there are some things that just cannot be faked -- two out of three anyway.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Southwestern Gothic

(Picture by Mars - click to enlarge)

(Santa Fe, NM) Mars and I were relaxing in the hot tub when she spotted J & J's cat looking down at us from one of the canals ("canales") that carry the water from the rooftop of their adobe house. Mars rushed inside for her camera but by the time she returned "Kitkat" had moved. The fast moving feline was not however quick enough to avoid being captured in Haiku.

Gargoyle guardian,
The cat on the canale --
Soutwestern Gothic.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Good Walks Improved

Playing golf with someone on his home course, and hiking with an off-the-leash dog on its native turf, are very much alike. In both instances you feel as if you are more "in the vicinity of" rather than "with" your partner -- but still that you are both very much in it together.

We first learned about the canine part of the equation two years ago when we house-sat for J & J and Audrey the dog at their home in the high desert hills surrounding Santa Fe, NM. We recently reprised that performance with another three-week stint at the same address. Every morning we took our canine charge for her daily constitutional along the high desert trails of her neighbor less neighborhood. And every day the protocol was the same.

To start Mars, Audrey, and I would walk out from the house as a unit. Audrey would bounce in anticipation as she watched to see which of the four compass points we were heading toward. As soon as we took enough steps to indicate the path, Audrey would dart off into the underbrush in that general direction with a look of intensity on her face that indicated the earth-shattering importance of her mission.

(photo by Mars - click photo to enlarge)

Audrey's rapid and seemingly random departure was quite disconcerting to me on our very first trek. Not thinking that she was the trained trail professional and I was the territorial tyro I quickly became worried that I had succeeded in losing the poor dog on my very first attempt to do anything with her. Not knowing what else to do I continued walking.

Fortunately a few minutes later she popped out of the bushes about one hundred feet ahead of me. She assessed the direction in which I was heading, decided it was okay, and headed back to do her undercover work. This little vignette repeated itself every few minutes during the course of every hike with Audrey. We actually spent very little time by her side. Yet, she always got there before we did, continually checked up on us to ensure everything was okay, and, when the walk was over, expressed what a great time she had being out with us.

Our recent golf experience was opposite yet identical.

We played for the first time recently with J, who along with his non-golfing wife MJ have been friends for many years. J is a longtime linksman, retired like us, who normally plays at the Simsbury Farms Golf Course -- a municipal course built on the former site of the Orkel Apple Orchard and Farm. As a child Mars went there on fruit and vegetable buying trips with her family. The layout is still populated with maple trees (at that time in varying degrees of autumn reds and yellows); apple trees with the odors of decomposing fruit at their bases; fading red storage barns; and at one artistically placed boulder right alongside a fairway. The weather was clear and sunny with temperatures in the low seventies. The day would have been good even if the golf were not.

Unlike our Santa Fe dog walking experience I was the one wandering off into the underbrush -- in this case tall, healthy, shot-blocking forestry rather than dried waist high juniper bushes. While J -- after pointing out the vagaries of the hole we were about to play, and after we all had hit our drives -- would walk purposefully down the close-cropped fairway with Mars pretty much following along in his path.

As a result I did not have much contact with the rest of my group unless they joined me on the sidelines to search for one of my errant drives. J showed an uncanny ability to track my mis-hit white orbs and locate them in the midst of dried, fallen leaves, broken twigs, low growing bushes, and New England stone walls. Thanks to his efforts and in spite of mine I lost only one ball during our afternoon on the links.

So the protocol here became: (1) we all gathered to hit our drives; (2) went our separate ways; (3) occasionally commingled to search for a missing ball or for me to get a club from the back of the cart that Mars was driving; (4) shouted "nice shot" from a distance; (5) regrouped on the green to finish the hole; and (6) followed J to the next one.

Like hiking, and unlike every other sport that I am familiar with, golf is a solitary activity -- perhaps the only game that you play entirely by yourself, regardless of the size of your group.

Madeleine L'Engle has written, "Every so often I need out -- away from all these people I love most in the world -- in order to regain a sense of proportion. My special place is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings."

And for some of us it is negotiating our way through unfamiliar territory under the watchful but unobtrusive eye of a good, untethered guide.


Mars closed her 2008 golf season by getting a par on the 18th and last hole of the day -- an uphill par 3. First she hit a good drive that mysteriously disappeared into an invisible soft mud hole right in the middle of the fairway. J extricated the ball. Mars then chipped up over the hilltop onto the green, and "drained" her twenty-foot putt. If not in her own "Circle of Quiet" she was definitely in "the zone".

Monday, November 10, 2008

Dog and Butterfly

On desert purple
Tiger Post-its hold their place.
Windblown weightless wings.

"If you want the butterflies, then you have to take the bees."

Kwame told me that. He is a former co-worker and tennis opponent who has since returned to his native land of Ghana. He spoke with the deep voice and musical rhythm of a wise African adage architect. And although he was at the time speaking specifically about my own homegrown butterfly garden, he clearly had his subtext mojo working.

On a non-allegorical level my backyard flowerbed never really attracted enough customers of either kind to prove or disprove Kwame's point. The purple bush that I am sitting next to right now, in northern New Mexico, however affirms its truth with a vengeance.

Mars and I are house/dog/cat-sitting during the latter half of October in Santa Fe. The house sits amidst ten acres of property in the partially developed high desert hills along the northern edge of town. The purple groundcover occupies the altar position on a flat-stone deck alongside the adobe building.

(photo by Mars)

Arranged along the top of the bush are dozens of pairs of whisper-thin black and orange wings that open and close randomly and repeatedly -- pointless movements, except perhaps as expressions of pleasure.

Surrounding and interspersed among these silent nectar sippers are scores of squirming and staggering bees. The smaller insects collectively create an ebb and flow of buzzing. A rising and falling hum like toy airplanes circling the field, that drowns out what little competitive sounds there are in this rarified atmosphere.

No bug bothers any other nor do any of them pay the slightest bit of attention to Mars and me. They are almost as steadfast in their devotion to their jobs as is Audrey the dog -- for whom we are sitting and who, in return, provides around-the-clock security services to us as she does for her actual keepers.

Her preferred guard post is twenty or so paces beyond the purple bush, at the precipice of a steep slope that descends to the dirt road that provides the house its address.

She sits there erectly, like an Egyptian dog statue, constantly turning her head to scan for intruders that blip onto to her internal radar screen. Moments ago she growled and stood on all four with her hackles raised. Then slowly she trotted down the hill to investigate the situation further.

There have been no further noises -- no "Get the f*** out of here" or "Hey, I could use a little help!" barks, and she still hasn't returned to her sentry spot. So, based on prior experiences and advice from her normal human co-habitants, Mars and I assume that the perimeter is safe and all is well on the western front.

Yesterday around 4:30 p.m. MDT the coyotes began calling to each other in their whiny, high-pitched, call-and-answer style. Audrey reacted in kind with a deeper, intentionally threatening response. The wild canines were hidden in the low growing juniper and pinon bushes that dot the downhill, flatland area surrounding the neighborhood arroyo. Audrey was at her usual aerie-watch location so her persistent barks echoed across the landscape -- effectively drowning out (at least from our perspective) the semi-threats from the lowlands.

After ten minutes of back and forth challenges and warnings the troubling concert came to an end. During that time Audrey migrated over to my position and stood next to me as I peered down towards the arroyo unsuccessfully searching for her tormentors.

This morning (as we did everyday) Mars, Audrey, and I went for a walk along the arroyo. Surprisingly we did not see any canine tracks or scat other than what Audrey created. Audrey walks without a leash and roams freely through the brush and high land alongside the water passage -- checking in with us periodically to ensure that she and we are heading in the same direction. She didn't act any differently when we went by what I perceived as last night's coyote concert venue.

(Later in our three week visit Mars would see a coyote passing nearby the house during breakfast. Audrey was inside at the time and immediately reacted with a chorus of barks that lasted for several minutes until she and I went outside to ensure that she had driven the intruder away. On our next to last day another "brush wolf" ran across the arroyo in front of us. Audrey ran after it and again the feral dog fled the scene.)

Audrey loves her job -- and the autonomy that it, and her location, affords her to explore the world around her. Coyotes are just part of the deal.

As Kwame would say...

Friday, November 07, 2008

Etz Hayyim (Tree of Life)

"Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat the fruit of them." (Jeremiah 29:5)

Conventional wisdom says that it is really hard for anything to grow in the high desert of New Mexico. It ain't necessarily so.

Stacy and Jim invited us to a tree planting party at their house in Santa Fe, while Mars and I were out there house-sitting. They became friends of our daughter-in-law and son after Monica and Bram moved to that city three years ago. Stacy is also an east-coaster (Brooklyn), and is a caterer and on-air host of "Mouth of Wonder" (a food program on KSFR, a local public radio station). Monica ("the web goddess") created and maintains the website for "MOW". Jim is a furniture maker who designed and built shelving for Monica and Bram in exchange for Monica's Internet labors.

The tree planting was in commemoration of Stacy's father Ben who had died one year ago. Her mother, Bernice who moved from Long Island to Santa Fe after her husband's death, and her brother Randy from California was there along with many of Stacy and Jim's friends who have now become Bernice's amigos as well. Monica and Bram were among the original guests and when they mentioned that we would be visiting Santa Fe we also were asked to come.

Bernice and Stacy are Jewish and said that it was traditional to put up a memorial one year after the burial. Since the interment was in New York and all of the family is out west and therefore unlikely to visit an east coast gravestone it was decided to plant a tree in Santa Fe instead.

Bernice said that Ben was a lover of pears, "eating pears and poaching pears", so two local varieties were chosen and two large holes prepared for their new homes.

The yard is typical New Mexico soil -- rock hard, bone dry, nutrient free, and pretty much unable to support any form of life other than tumbleweeds which Stacy and Jim had in abundance when they moved in. And in even more abundance shortly thereafter. Contrary to their name tumbleweeds are quite adamant about holding their ground and even more insistent on spreading themselves around.

At first Stacy and Jim thought "hey, it's green" but after several warnings about the invasiveness of the plant, and after watching their arid landscape being turned into a tumbleweed terrace, they decided to take action. There is a considerable slope to the backyard (about 720 degrees) and the builder had installed mesh wiring to prevent erosion. The tumbleweed attached itself to the mesh, the mesh was attached to the ground, yada, yada. After much blood, sweat, and tears the yard was tumbleweed free.

Now they are attempting to landscape the yard with less pushy, more gentile (that's gen-teeel) local plants -- and hopefully two productive pear trees.

But first there were appetizers and drinks while all of the guests arrived. Not knowing most of the people at the party Mars and I migrated to what were familiar with -- the food -- and settled in around the kitchen island which was covered with hors d'oeuvres and surrounded by like-minded people with whom we chatted in between bites.

After a while we moved to the outdoors with Monica and Bram where we were joined by Bernice who talked about her migration from the noise of New York to the "too quiet" of Santa Fe. Bernice's "New Yawk" accented voice has now become a regular part of Stacy's radio program. She also volunteers at a local museum, plays grandmother to the kids in her apartment building, and is one of the small number of riders on the Santa Fe buses where she is on a first-name basis with the drivers. She also changed her hair color, clothes and makeup, because she thought that she was blending in too much with the totally tan landscape and architecture of "The City Different".

Then it was time for the planting.

Stacy said a few words explaining why they had chosen to do this. Several guests who knew Ben spoke. And it was time to go to work.

Many of the folks in attendance were New Mexican gardeners. I am a Connecticut one. The main difference seems to be that I spend the majority of my horticultural time pruning back and transplanting plants to keep them from overcrowding each other, and the southwestern ones expend even more hours just trying to get them to appear above ground in a somewhat green condition. Removing tumbleweed I would have been good at, starting trees probably not so good.

I do however hope someday to become a New Mexico gardener. Because of that and, since I am a member of a Connecticut men's garden club and familiar with what happens when a group of us plant experts get together to commit horticulture, I decided to keep my mouth shut, pick up a shovel, and do what I was told.

Jim had already dug two large square holes, each one slightly deeper than the height of the ball at the base of the pear trees. Next to each opening were its future occupant, a pile of dirt, and several bags of some soil amendment stuff. All had been purchased and brought into the backyard to replace the infertile lumps of hard clay that had been removed and were now scattered nearby. As one of my club members says "Dirt is what you find on your kitchen floor. What you need is soil!"

I quickly realized the first and most basic step of New Mexican gardening -- throw away the earth that you've got and replace it with something from someplace else -- something that might actually sustain life. I pictured the entire landscape of the "Land of Enchantment" as dotted with secret little plant-sized pockets of imported and enhanced soil and told Bram to expect several packages of backyard earth from Connecticut in the near future.

It was decided that the holes were slightly too deep and that the roots of the pears needed something soft and welcoming surrounding them, so a few of us began shoveling in the imported stuff. Then we added some of the soil builder which certainly smelled as if it had to be doing something good. We alternated layers of soil and soil helper until the hole was filled and the fertile dirt pile was depleted.

The history of the desert southwest is the history of water -- where it comes from, how much is available, who owns it, and who has access to it -- and has been told in novels and films such as the "Milagro Beanfield War". (The movie was filmed in Truchas, N.M., the home of the pear trees that we were planting today.) The key to bringing life to the various forms of vegetation that have been planted in the standalone soil pods is to connect them to some form of hydration, initially via irrigation canals and nowadays with black, rubber drip irrigation tubing -- thousands of independent local area networks snaking across the arid, high desert land.

The hose was turned on and adjusted to a low rate of flow, and we finished the job by building little dirt and stone dams along the downhill side of the tree holes to keep in as much water as possible. Then it was time eat some more, and absorb the lessons learned.

1) re NM gardening -- buy local and BYO soil and water
2) the best way to plant anything is with good friends and great food.
3) transplants flourish if they have a desire to grow, are able to adapt to their surroundings, and have a strong local network to support them.

Pearl Tree Planting photos @ going2nm